Lawsuit challenges state ballot access law

Published 1:18 pm Friday, January 9, 2009

MONTGOMERY — A federal lawsuit seeks to throw out an Alabama law that requires independent or third party candidates in the state to collect thousands of signatures to get their names on the ballot.

The lawsuit was filed by Andy Shugart, a Gardendale real estate investor, who said he wanted to run last year as an independent for the 6th Congressional District seat but did not because the law required him to collect 6,155 signatures — more than he figured he could get.

The Alabama law requires independent and third party candidates to submit signatures equal to 3 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last governor’s race. In the heavily populated 6th District, the law would have required Shugart to collect even more than the 5,000 signatures a separate law requires independent and third party candidates for president to submit.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense, except to exclude people from the ballot,” said Shugart’s attorney, Arlene Richardson of Highland Home. “It’s why you usually don’t see anyone on the ballot in Alabama except Democrats and Republicans.”

There was no Democratic Party candidate on the 6th District ballot and incumbent Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Birmingham, won re-election last year without facing opposition. There were no third party or independent candidates on the ballot in any statewide or congressional races in the Nov. 3 general election, except for president.

The lawsuit was initially filed last summer in federal court in Birmingham, but was transferred in December to the Montgomery federal courthouse. The case has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Wallace Capel, who has not scheduled a hearing or issued an order.

Shugart said Friday the process of collecting more than 6,000 signatures would have been too difficult and time consuming. He said he considered running as a Democrat or Republican, but does not agree with the policies of either party.

“When I found out what was going on in those parties, it was such a turnoff. The problem is both parties have inhibited access to the ballot to maintain their power structure,” Shugart said.

The lawsuit was filed against Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman and asks the court to declare it unconstitutional to require any candidate for public office in Alabama to collect more than the 5,000 signatures required for presidential candidates. To run for governor in 2010, an independent or third party candidate would have to collect about 37,500 signatures or 3 percent of the 1.25 million votes cast in the 2006 governor’s race.

Deputy Attorney General Jim Davis is representing Chapman in the lawsuit. He said the state has asked that the suit be dismissed, but declined to discuss the merits of the case.

Alabama Libertarian Party chairman Stephen Gordon said it’s easier for independent and third party candidates to get on the ballot in most other states. For example, in Colorado only 800 signatures are required to run for a U.S. House seat.

“I would say Alabama has one of the most egregious thresholds in the country for getting on the ballot,” Gordon said.

In addition to the signature requirement, a third party must receive 20 percent of the vote in an election to gain automatic access in the next election, Gordon said.